Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Your safety is assured because I hate your bike

 Some customers have expressed gratitude over the years for my vigilance in finding things like frame and component cracks that could have led to catastrophic failures. These include cracks in suspension forks and other linkages, failing handlebars, and cracking rims.

The dark truth is, I take delight in finding fault in ultramodern tech weenie bikes and parts. The customer's safety just comes along for the ride. I would scrutinize their bikes in any case, looking for the satisfaction of a structural or functional failure that I know will be there. It's a wonderful affirmation. I don't mind benefiting humanity, but my real aim is to compile such a huge dossier of evidence against the overwhelming mass of stupid design and cynical gouging that has overtaken the bike industry since the 1990s that it finally creates a customer backlash that returns us to an ethic of durability. That would be the real service to humanity. Because that is doomed to failure, I'll take the small victories of one or two riders at a time preserved from disaster, or perhaps even converted to the path of durability and simplicity. It has happened, a rare few times, that riders have abandoned the NEW! and IMPROVED! offerings of the industry and returned to a saner form of the machine.

Older stuff fails, too. It always did. Some changes are actually improvements. We have to be patient with some evolution as an idea gets refined. For example, the threadless headset started as a way to get around the problem that the influx of new mechanics in the explosive rise of the mountain bike boom couldn't understand how a locknut works. They couldn't adjust hubs and they couldn't get headsets to stay tight. You could overlook the hubs until they got really bad, but the clunky loose headsets were right there in front of you. So someone came up with a fancy-sounding reason to clamp the stem around the steerer tube and set the bearing adjustment with a cap screw. Then they just had to teach the ham-fisted apprentices not to graunch down so hard on that top screw that they broke the bottom out of the plastic top cap. On the first models, the top cap was designed to fail like that so that the enthusiastic wrench grunt wouldn't crush the actual bearings when they overtightened the headset. Within a couple of years, this had changed and metal top caps became the norm. They were slimmer and stood up better to abuse. They looked sleeker, and could be printed or engraved with logos. 

One nice thing about the threadless headset for the self-propelled traveler was that you didn't need a big headset spanner to adjust or disassemble the headset. That meant one less large tool for the fully equipped tourist to carry in the bottom of a pannier, hoping not to need it. But threadless headsets created real difficulties changing the height of the bars. The devices developed to deal with that can be very clunky and inelegant.

Cassette hubs went through a period where they were a real improvement, too. During the brief time when you could get replacement cogs in any size, and the cogs were separate across the entire gear range, you could customize or repair a cassette at home or in a tent with only hand tools. And the freehub design does put the support bearings for the axle in a better position to support the drive side. Beyond that, though, the design of cassettes now has turned into another facet of technological enslavement. One article I read while researching bike gearbox transmissions in mountain bikes said, "External drivetrain owners who ride often might replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times per year, and the chainring and cassette once annually. As those components wear and their precise angles begin to dull, performance suffers. The chain is pulled laterally across the cog teeth under heavy loads, and as dirt and debris are introduced the metal is essentially sanded away."

Great, more stuff sent to the landfill by a once ecologically supportive industry. And a 12-speed cassette sells for an average retail price of close to $100.

Customers I deal with are not expecting to replace their chain, cables, and housing three or four times a year, although they might choke down replacing the cassette and chainring annually. With internal cable routing and full-length housing, replacing those parts can add up to a hefty service bill just to have the fussy shifting mechanism returned to its original state of acceptable mediocrity passing for precision. They certainly won't believe me if I share this information with them, even though I would rather do something else with a couple of irreplaceable hours of my life than ferret out cables and housing from the mysterious interior of their overpriced toy.

Because bikes are toys, they're designed for people who can afford to play games. It's not about finding enjoyment and fulfillment in the necessary labors of transporting yourself. It's merely discretionary recreation. The players might wish that their toys held up better, but they always have the option to quit. In the meantime, companies that make stuff want to find ways to get people to buy it. Once someone is recruited from the sidelines, how do you get them to part with more and more coin to keep the company in business?

The more complicated things get, the more details can get overlooked. Even my own urge to scrutinize is overwhelmed by the volume of work and the external complications required to hunt down solutions to the problems we can readily identify. I also have to fight through an initial thick fog of disinterest, because I find nothing desirable about the bikes brought before me.

My scrutiny is more appreciative on designs I like. I want to preserve and protect a bike I respect. Since those are almost invariably older, they may have seen more miles. But because the designs are simpler they could be built a little stronger, because the weight budget didn't get spent on bulky index shifter mechanisms, disc brake calipers, suspension forks, and rear suspension assemblies. Road bikes of today don't delve too deeply into suspension, but they do have the weight of disc brakes and bulky shifters. The weight budget for those comes from the lighter frame and rim weight, but those definitely come at a cost. Not every piece of racing technology should trickle -- or deluge -- down upon the citizen rider just looking for a bit of sporty transportational fun.

When the oppression of proprietary shifting systems first descended on the biking world disguised as a great new convenience and a boon to all humanity, I treated their ills as any physician would when faced with a new disease. I wondered, as any plague doctor would, how long the scourge would last, and how many casualties it would take. It would have required a widespread customer revolt to stop the spread of it. We've all seen how unbelievably hard it is to get the vast majority of people to band together to take simple actions to stop a plague. Lots of people either don't think it's serious or see some advantage in it for themselves.

Unlike the current actual plague afflicting our species these days, the plague of proprietary bike systems really was manufactured by known entities intending to profit heavily from their scheme.

One company in particular seemed to lead the way, but the other big players, including at least one new entity whose product was originally derisively called "gripshit," followed along behind the marketing juggernaut that was convincing a large pool of new customers that they needed innovation.

Some changes were improvements, even some changes that I derided at the time, before I studied them more closely and the changes themselves evolved into something more standardized and less "Shimano-y." Like linear pull brakes.

Original V-brakes were complicated and notoriously noisy, with Shimano's "parallel push" linkage. The idea was well meant, but in typical fashion it was overkill for the actual problem of brake pad alignment at the rim on cantilever brakes. 

Parallel Push disappeared after a couple of years, and now linear pull brakes themselves have been scrapped in favor of the even more complicated and annoying disc brakes. 

Disc brakes are a good idea on mountain bikes, because they take vulnerable, bendable rims out of the braking system, but they generate their own complications because you have to keep the fluid where you want it and rigorously guard against getting it where you don't. Rotors bend easily. There are two types of fluid. Know yours and keep it faithfully, for I thy brake fluid am a jealous brake fluid. Or you can have cables for slightly less hassle, and much easier servicing, at the cost of some braking power and modulation.

When I rode the Vermont 50 in about 1998, on my fully rigid Gary Fisher with friction shifting (my choice), old-style cantilever brakes, triple crank, and a low gear of 24-28, I did not finish DFL. My lower mid field finishing position had nothing to do with my lack of a suspension fork and up-to-the-minute shifting, and everything to do with my sense of self preservation on the descents. I also lost precious time helping some idiot with a flat tire, because my buddy Ralph had busted my balls for being unsympathetic to someone who broke a Shimano chain in the Hillsboro Classic earlier in the year. And I blew time at the feed stops, admiring the views. Vermont is wicked scenic. But that was the olden days. Courses now are not designed around primitive bikes like my mutant Aquila. The mountain bikers of today are the ones we dropped on all the climbs back in the 1990s, or their philosophical descendants.  And descend they do.

In summary, my critical attitude -- to put it mildly -- toward most modern innovations serves the customer just as well as a deep affection for the same abusive partner we all have in the bike industry. You may be deep in the clutches of that abusive relationship, Stockholm-syndromed to the max, fully convinced that you're hooked into something you can't live without, and I will still do my best to protect you from the worst consequences of your addiction. Because this is capitalism, that comes at a price. You need to know the true cost of chasing down all the flaws behind the facade presented by the marketing department, because you pay in some way, sooner or later. Taking care of this crap is neither simple nor easy, despite what disparagement you may read about bike shops in online forums. It's a daily struggle to keep abreast of all the changes we never needed in the first place, while trying to maintain what was genuinely good in the face of industry neglect.

Monday, September 27, 2021

The only thing we have to fear is each other

 As the season of darkness settles on us in the northern hemisphere, bike commuters have to decide whether to continue or suspend their activities until the sun returns again. The biggest danger in night riding is the same as the biggest danger in daylight: motor vehicles.

Cycling is scary enough in full daylight. We hear all the time about riders injured or killed, often by drivers who evade prosecution by leaving the scene. Even if the offender is tracked down, the penalties for ending a cyclist or pedestrian's life are usually laughably mild. If you want to be reminded over and over again how cheap life is, just try to get around without an armored vehicle.

Just recently, a rider here in New Hampshire was killed by a hit-and-run driver. She was a retired police officer training for a benefit ride. As luck would have it, there was enough information from the scene for police to track down the driver and start putting together a case against him. The assault occurred around 10:30 in the morning. That should be prime time for drivers to be awake, aware, and observant. Last I saw, the maximum time he could serve in prison for killing someone in this way was seven years for negligent homicide. And who ever gets the maximum sentence? Maybe a cop killer will, but it still seems like way too little. And if she'd lived, paralyzed and incapacitated, the penalty would be less, because "thank God no one was killed."

Crashes occur. For the most part, operator error is to blame. Even if the cause is defective equipment, it's probably because someone wasn't maintaining the vehicle properly. Look at you own life and think about how many risks you have gotten away with over the years. I most definitely include myself. You get going, driven by a real or imagined sense of urgency, and your visual field narrows as your speed increases. We are remarkably good at making quick ballistic calculations on the fly, but when it fails it can fail spectacularly, as the accumulated risks all converge at once. The unintended consequence could be as mild as a bent fender or as grotesque as a pile of crushed and shattered vehicles, with brains and entrails splashed across the highway. Oopsie.

A bicyclist has no shell of metal, plastic, and glass to take the impact. Any contact tends to be a serious one for the cyclist, simply because of the size and mass of the vehicles involved. Even when cyclists hit each other, the ground is the next stop. There have been fatal crashes where only cyclists and their surrounding environment were involved. Cyclists have struck and killed pedestrians. On popular paths, conflicts are common, because the bicyclists and pedestrians directed there are not a placid herd of grateful plodders. They exhibit the full range of personalities, including the aggressive and the oblivious.

When I lived in a more urban environment, 1979 to 1987, I commuted by bike exclusively, because I did not have a car. The season of darkness is not as long and deep in Annapolis, Maryland, as it is in central New Hampshire, but I did have to ride in the dark a lot. I equipped the bike with the best lights I could get at the time, and I had no problems. But the built environment has a lot more ambient light at night. My commuting route changed as my residence and workplace shifted to different cross-sections of the general area, so sometimes I had short stretches of unlighted road, but they were also not busy at the time. Now all the roads are busy down there, and what were dark and empty stretches are obliterated by lighted sprawl.

Up here, my route is much longer and follows roads that are almost entirely unlighted. The longest part is on a two-lane rural highway with a narrow shoulder. Where it enters Wolfeboro it is narrower, with more bends, and no shoulder. I'm fortunate to live north of town. The route in and out of Wolfe City from the south is much nastier.

Coming out of town, when I will be in the dark in the fall and winter, I could use the Cotton Valley Trail for part of it, and I did, for several years. Before that was an option, and recently, since the pandemic made the trail crowded, I have ridden an indirect but safer route out of town, that bypasses the bendy bit of Center Street. Inbound on Center Street, drivers are compressing and slowing, which makes them more attentive to obstructions like a bike rider. Headed out of town, they're decompressing, speeding up, and have far less patience with some sweaty idiot interrupting their flow. Yes, they need some character education, but since it's unlikely to work, I choose not to do it with my flesh. I evade. However, I have to rejoin the route out where Route 28 assumes its highway configuration, with longer sight lines and a bit of shoulder. The only way I can completely evade the motoring public is to quit riding.

Park and ride options are contrived, because the only places to hang a car are off my direct route. Competition for parking increased when the pandemic sparked the boom in outdoor activities like biking and walking. And as winter deepens the parking places are not plowed out.  That may change as winter activities on the trail system developing around the Cotton Valley Trail expand, but then competition for parking increases even more. And an unattended vehicle may invite theft.

If the only challenges were weather and darkness, I would not hesitate to ride the whole route through much of the winter. Snow and ice make wheels impractical, but most winters are not completely snow covered from end to end, especially in recent years. I have studded tires for one of the bikes rigged for commuting. Without motorists, would there be any incentive to keep the roads clear? Maybe if bike transportation was the norm, or at least much more common, some sort of taxation method would fund road maintenance. Extra points if it didn't involve tons of corrosive substances to melt the ice. Cyclists already pay taxes, but if we were more major beneficiaries of the road network it would be reasonable to make sure that we paid an amount that addressed our actual strain on resources. And just rolling the snow to a firm, frozen surface would give non-fat studded tires a good enough grip. If it's softer than that I'd ski to work.

I've noted before that drivers seem to become more aggressive when cloaked by darkness. It didn't seem that way in Maryland, but it certainly seems that way here. The highway stretch is actually not as scary as Elm Street, which has some tight turns and undulating hills. Traversing the glacial plains, the topography isn't rugged, but it's not flat, either. The road makes a convenient connection to Route 16, so it funnels traffic from as far away as Maine. It's not bumper to bumper busy except on holiday weekends, when it seems to have become a popular bypass for drivers trying to get around backups on Route 16 southbound. Then they all jam up trying to get back out of Elm Street into the crawling southbound flow. At the hours that I use it, I only have the normal local traffic to deal with. But the sparse traffic contributes to the problem of motorist impatience.

In the darkness, motorists are blinding each other with their headlights as they charge toward each other in the narrow space. If it's only a couple of vehicles in each direction, they will endure a moment of tension as they try to negotiate the gap in the radiance of their dueling floodlights. Add a bike rider, and it's just too much to ask of poor drivers who have to put up with so much frustration in their lives.

Day or night, my riding style is heavily influenced by the competition for space on the road. I have never ridden in a place where motorists would peacefully accept a cyclist claiming lane space at a comfortable, relaxed pace. Years of riding will make you smoother, more efficient, and generally faster, but age takes its toll. In nature, you'd be the gazelle that gets dropped by the herd and provides dinner for the lions. Until that time, you develop your own style to keep friction at a manageable level. Riders who are scrappy and enjoy friction will ride in a way that they know will antagonize the motoring public. Or they might ride without regard to laws and conventions because they consider it a right of sorts, and accept the friction as part of the cost. I prefer to try to facilitate everyone's flow as much as I can without subordinating myself -- or cyclists in general -- to the motoring majority. There's a certain bending of the law that helps everyone to keep moving. It's not a zero-sum game. It's a negotiation.

Not everyone deals reasonably. The motorists hold the upper hand in a contest of force. A cyclist has no defense against someone unreasonable. Every driver around you has a personal set of rules that they're applying to you. It seems to me that one limit that some of them set is sunset. When I was much younger and faster, I would routinely ride the commute into October, with only marginal lights. I detected few hassles beyond the normal ones that come with riding on the roads. I carried less back then, and rode a lighter bike. But even then I shut the game down before mid October. I would push it until I could no longer pretend that I'd made it home before dark. Now, with really functional lights, but an older engine and a heavier bike, I would ride happily in the darkness, but it puts me into forbidden territory with these few but regular fellow road users on my route who have decided that I don't belong there after sundown. No alternate route avoids the worst part without a long detour. Is the living free worth the increased risk of dying? Any road cyclist who tells you that they don't think about the possibility of getting maimed or killed every time they go out is either lying or has no imagination at all.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Can't operate without the computer

 Modern fighter jets are designed for such extreme maneuverability that they are actually unstable in regular flight. It's an exaggerated example of the difference between a tight, steep racing road bike and a touring bike, but it's a similar principle. The machine designed for competitive -- or combative -- responsiveness isn't made for inattentive cruising. The pilot or rider provide the skill necessary to operate. And, in the case of the modern warbird, the pilot gets vital assistance from onboard computer systems that coordinate the constant stream of variables challenging smooth flight. That's starting to creep into the bike world as well, with computerized shifting helping to manage infuriatingly temperamental drive trains with 12 or 13 cogs squeezed together, pulled by a chain that has side plates as skinny as razor blades.

In the workshop we depend increasingly on the computer to keep track of the deluge of information about all the parts of all the different categories of bikes across decades. I spend hours a day looking up specs and procedures for suspension, shifting, and brake systems as they have evolved since the 1990s. The bike industry may have torn the rear view mirror off and nailed the throttle to the floorboard as they stare fixedly forward and roar into a sun-blinded futurescape, but here in the present, people are dragging in all sorts of things from the near and distant past, expecting that an expert in a professional bike shop will know how to bring them back to full functionality.

We try, because we know no better. And we succeed a good bit, because we have many allies. The trick is to find the true information in the uncurated jumble of anecdote and hearsay, to learn something you didn't know before, or refresh your memory about something that got buried under a couple of tons of newer crap.

I resent it. Knowledge used to flow at a human pace. The industry might have seemed to plod, but it suited the pace of human propulsion. Technolemmings will disagree, of course, but no one can deny that we all still push the pedals with the same power that we always have. Some super-trainers and the pharmaceutically enhanced can push harder for a time. Some riders have paid for electrical assistance. Strip away those props and you're left with the same old sweaty grunt grinding away at the cranks.

Information is not knowledge. No one can possibly have experience with all of the things we're expected to know about as lowly bike technicians. Anyone who rides enough in all categories to have a depth of relevant experience in all of them won't have time to have a job, especially a job like fixing bikes. And someone who earns a living fixing bikes won't be able to afford decent bikes in all categories. And so we turn to that flaming dumpster of all human knowledge, the Internet, to hunt down enough verifiable information to keep treading water in the flood of products.

For many years, I could analyze a system by looking at it. Now that is no longer true, particularly with shifting systems. The stupid idea that all the gears should be in the back, and that the cassette should span from 10 or 11 to 50 or 52 teeth has led to mutant derailleurs sensitive to angle adjustment errors of a millimeter or two. There is no fudge factor and there is no ability to improvise. Cassettes don't come apart to allow custom gearing or individual cog replacement. The industry inexorably blocks off every avenue except the One True Path of their proprietary products.

 I do believe that the future of mountain bike gearing lies in enclosed gearboxes, like motorcycles have. Derailleur systems are wonderfully simple and durable for people who want to ride a bicycle in a traditional way, even if they venture onto some unpaved roads and mild trails. But mountain biking in its current style, as a ride to nowhere, looking for entertaining features like a cross between motocross, parkour, and miniature golf, is too rough on a derailleur system. So far, the gearbox designers have not come up with a generic shape that will fit any frame, so mountain biking gets even closer to motorcycling in the sense that bikes will be more completely committed to manufacturer support. It's a step backward to very early times, when bikes were made in little factories all over the place, by machinists who made every part in house and advertised the virtues of their specific approach. The idea of cross-brand interchangeability evolved later. It broadened the appeal and versatility of the bicycle to allow a rider to venture far from the source and still have a chance to find service and repair parts. But it also hampered designers who wanted to start from a basic set of needs or desires and design to meet them, independent of existing constraints.

Gearbox transmissions highlight the difference between a human engine and a mechanical one. The "clutch" is provided by the human rider letting up on the pedals to allow the gears to complete a shift. Test riders have complained that this interrupts their rhythm and can break momentum unacceptably on steep climbs or in technical passages. So for now we're stuck with the weird derailleur systems that will shift under load and are lighter in weight, and throw money and time at them to keep them operating in the hamster wheel of modern mountain biking.

Meanwhile, it gets harder and harder to maintain a good old derailleur-geared bike with a double or a triple crank, adult-sized chainrings, and a cassette that doesn't have a low-gear cog the size of a manhole cover and a high gear cog the size of a nickel. We go to the computer again for that, even if only to compare our different vendors to see who has what, and compare prices, like the $40 (retail) 74X28 chainring versus the same size ring from another vendor, that would retail for half of that. We're headed toward scrounging the scrap heap for nearly everything, on top of the amount of salvage that has already become the norm. Recycling is good; it always was. But now we're into post-apocalyptic territory to keep what used to be normal bikes running as cobbled-together mutants in a world too modern for its own good.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Read the manual

 From the instructions for a Shimano rear derailleur:

They don't say how long to leave it there. Do I need to lie on a skateboard and go everywhere with this rider, or can I just lick it once and it's good to go?

Next up, a couple of selections from an almost incomprehensible ebike manual:

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Do not resuscitate?

Triage has been in the news a lot lately, with the harsh measures in Idaho in response to overloaded hospitals. 

Last week I posted some pictures of one of life's little victories, a time-consuming but inescapable process to save a bike frame that was otherwise seriously limited, if not outright useless. The comments all questioned whether I had wasted my time.

Bike repair shops have seen crisis levels of repair volume since last year, when people who couldn't go to work or socialize in groups discovered outdoor activities. Because new bikes have been almost impossible to get, people repaired a lot of things that they would have discarded in the convenience-oriented consumerist fashion we've been encouraged -- if not forced -- to adopt increasingly since the 1960s.

Growing up, my family wasn't poor, but my parents both were born just before the Great Depression, and were raised in and immediately after it. Their values were shaped by the idea that money can be hard to get and harder to keep, and that you take care of your stuff because you might not be able to replace it.

The bike boom of the 1970s and the cross-country ski boom that overlapped it might have been fueled in large part by the other kids who were raised in similar households. The major expense of either of those activities was the initial purchase of the bike or ski set. After that, participation was cheap or "free." Bikes needed maintenance, and you might decide to upgrade to something lighter or more shaped to a style you liked -- racing versus touring, for instance -- but you could have bought a nice mid-grade bike with sort of middling frame geometry, and ridden it for years, needing only tires, brake pads, chain lube, and other minor consumables. As for skis, your "skinny skier" hoped to find usable snow in parks, golf courses, and other public spaces, or perhaps would shell out the couple of dollars that a proper touring center charged for what passed for grooming at the time.

Subsequent generations have not received the same indoctrination. But for many, money is still hard to get and harder to keep. I ended up living where I live partly because working people couldn't afford housing where I used to live. I had several different full-time jobs and could barely afford to share a grubby apartment, let alone have one to myself. And roommate roulette is a risky game. By the time I fetched up here, chasing a job that disappeared within a few months, I couldn't afford to move again. All this reinforced my reflex to fix what can be fixed.

An affable guy who seems to work in the restaurant business brought us his dilapidated Fuji hybrid. We did a few necessary things to keep it running over the summer, but he needed more in-depth drive train work as soon as he could spare the bike and the cash. It needed chainrings -- or a crank -- a chain, cassette, both derailleurs, and some shift cables. With chainrings unavailable for his existing crank, we had to spec a replacement of lesser quality, but at least it was new. Because the industry has been playing with crank arm profiles as well as the plethora of bottom bracket standards, the bike needed a new, longer BB to match the profile of the crank. All of this was going to run him a bit over $200. With incidentals and a bit of a cushion, the estimate was $275.

In the process of stripping the bike down I noticed that the cable adjusters in the downtube cable stops were run out far enough to get bent, and that they were severely rusted. I dropped penetrating oil on them and let it soak for a day or two. When I tried to turn the one on the right, it twisted off and broke at the frame stop. I knew immediately that this was going to take a lot of work, if I could extract the stub at all. If I couldn't, the remaining piece would prevent me from fitting any other kind of ferrule there to use as a fixed stop. I had to win or the bike was dead. The owner would have no bike and we would get no money whatsoever for the time I had put in.

The busted adjuster
 The repair queue has lightened up a little from the crisis level of summer, but the complete hiatus that followed Labor Day quickly ended in a mini-surge that pushed us out to a week or more. It seems like more than half of these jobs are grimy slogs, too. But you do what you have to do. For decades I have imagined the life of someone in what we used to call the Third World, then the undeveloped world, and now the over-exploited world, working in a mud-brick stall with improvised tools to keep simple machinery operating for people who will never see our privileged lifestyle. This is the neighborhood that privileged nations -- and the consumers living in them -- roll up the windows to drive through, while simultaneously appropriating the tastier and livelier aspects of culture that might appeal to us.

Since the 1990s our shop has faced the need to salvage our investment of time and parts countless times when a stupid little detail threatens to send a repair job off the rails. Sometimes the fault lies with us, too quickly and superficially diagnosing a problem at check-in. Other times it's a serious but small thing, like a stress crack, or these rusted adjusters. It's especially tricky when someone who works very hard for their money has trusted us to help them and agreed not to bitch about the price. They're not rich whiners, chiseling for the sport of it.

No drill would line up correctly with the frame stop. Two kinds of screw extractor failed to budge the rusted remnant. Floods of penetrating oil, followed by torch flame, did not break the bond of corrosion. 

Thinking I might break the piece loose by threading a coarse screw into it and torquing on that, I found a self-tapper with an 8mm head and cranked it in, careful not to twist too exuberantly and wring that off in there.

Very slowly, the coarse screw extracted pieces of the rusted-in adjuster.

The curly piece came out initially, sparking hopes of a quick victory, but the reality is shown by the collection of filings in the threads of the screw. Working from one side and then the other of the adjuster, I cranked the screw in and backed it out, extracting tiny loads of metal filings. Eventually, the screw was able to pass all the way though.

Following that, I could get the Dremel tool to line up a little better than the big cordless drill, to cut away material that the coarse screw had left. At best I hoped to be able to set a smooth ferrule into the frame stop, leaving me with the adjusters on the shifters and rear derailleur to dial in the gears.

I'd already done some grinding with the big drill, limited severely by the angle as the chuck came up against the frame. And I broke a bit that way. The Dremel didn't line up perfectly, but the largest bit it held was small enough to pass all the way through without deviating the bore too severely. But the bits aren't designed for battles with recalcitrant metal, so it wasn't worth persisting too long with that tool.

I had a broken-off chainsaw file that fit the hole, and a pick that continued the dentist vibe generated by the sound of the Dremel.

The picking and scraping reminded my of the piece I wrote about bike mechanics and dentistry over the winter.

I noticed what looked like some of the original threads emerging as I picked out more and more of the adjuster debris. I found a bolt that looked like it might be made of some good old hard steel, and threaded it into the frame stop. Working very gradually, I used it to dress the threads and push out remaining pieces that I had not been able to dislodge with the pick. I was winning, although it was like digging your way out of a prison cell using a teaspoon. I'd tried a proper tap, but they're brittle, and don't offer a good purchase for a leverage tool in a tight space like that frame stop.

The salvage bin of derailleur parts held an adjuster that I was able to thread into the newly-cleaned frame stop.

We can win this thing. But I still had to do the left side. It had been soaking in penetrating oil for days now. Would the old adjuster cooperate and back out?

No. It wrung off without hesitation, with only minor torque. I began my now official procedure, moving from one phase to the next. It still wasn't fast, but it wasn't as slow as when I was still figuring it out.

Within a couple of hours, the left adjuster nestled in its spot and I could stomp through the rest of the assembly to swap out the drive train parts. There was only one minor glitch when I inflated the rear tire and discovered that it's too wide to fit the frame, even though it's nominally the same width as the front tire of a different brand. I swiftly dished the rear wheel slightly to gain sufficient clearance.

Based on our shop hourly rate, I should have charged about $375 just for the rusted adjuster portion of our festivities, bringing the total close to $600 for a job with an estimate of $275, max. In happier times, when we had used and new bikes more readily available, we would probably have suggested redirecting his investment toward one of them. But these are not those times. Instead we find ourselves more and more often like Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer, repairing the propeller of the African Queen alongside a jungle river.

A lot of times, a problem I solve may not be a big money maker at the time, but provides the basis for other solutions later, that might get us out of a jam or factor into a more lucrative job. Knowing something can be done, I can streamline the procedure as much as possible and add it to the menu of offerings to keep bikes on the road and out of the landfill. Or maybe I learn that it's such a time-sucking loser that we learn to screen for it rigorously at check-in, to avoid the pitfall in the future. Either way it's a gain.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The War on 74: the bike industry is threatening my granny

The right to repair is only as good as the availability of parts.

The mountain bike boom of the late 20th Century did two things (among others): it made the ISO/ETRTO 559 bead size the most widely distributed tire size in the world, and it made the 110/74 triple crank a universal standard. Those reliable points held true from the late 1980s through the 1990s, even though the bike industry started messing with chainring sizes and crank profiles by the mid 1990s, and introduced the concept of the 29er tire before the end of the century. They were trapped by their own previous success in distributing existing sizes on which they had based the first mountain bike designs.

Prior to the rise of 110/74, there were other triple crank bolt circle diameters, like Stronglight's 122, and TA's little circle of six bolts. Some early forms used the same BCD for all three rings, with the optional "granny" ring mounted on longer bolts with spacers. But triple cranks were mostly used by touring nerds, and even among tourists the majority used off the shelf double cranks with perhaps a 40-50 instead of a 42-52. As the idea of bike touring took hold, riders cobbled together what they could and headed out. Demand led supply, in the traditional way.

The Japanese component companies drove most innovation, making some nice parts for a lower price than the European manufacturers. From them we got the slant parallelogram derailleur and the 130 and 110 BCDs. As those two chainring sizes came to dominate, aftermarket component manufacturers offered numerous options for replacement rings. As the industry brought in new sizes, like 94/58, 94/56, and 4-bolt 104/64, aftermarket companies still kept up. So the industry hit the afterburner on proprietary sizes and asymmetrical bolt patterns to burn off as much competition as possible.

I wonder how much of the pathological and malignant competition in the bike industry is because founders and executives in bike companies used to race. Rather than look at the big picture of a unified world riding happily on millions of serviceable and durable (but sporty and fun) bikes, they look only at destroying their rivals and leaving a puking, miserable peloton collapsing in their wake.

I've felt confident over the years, recommending 110/74 cranks to riders who would rather be out on their bikes than shopping for parts or waiting for something to get repaired. Later, 104-64 seemed fairly stable among the newer generation of cranks as the two-piece configuration took over from the three-piece design. The most self sufficient riders accept simple equipment and learn to use it, rather than sucking up the latest convenience features in the latest temperamental shifting system.

Unfortunately, the industry finally noticed the happy escapees. The selection of 74mm inner chainrings has shriveled to just a few. The same goes for 110mm middle and outer rings. The selection of ring sizes has gotten smaller, reducing your ability to customize gearing to suit your needs. Because the 110 triple crank has been marginalized, most 110 rings are aimed at the road compact double, which uses only a few sizes. The most common pairing is 34-50, followed by 36-48 or 46. There's a fair range of 110 ring sizes just based on tooth count, but you have to look closely at the rest of the specs to see if you can make a particular ring play nicely with the others.You might find a chainring that fits the crank, but it's thin and light, designed to be used up and thrown away. You might need to use spacers the dial in the gap between rings so that the chain drops into place, rather than jamming in between rings or riding on top of one without engaging the teeth.

The pandemic-induced shortages make the shrinking selection look worse. Things might improve, but we're also up against the industry's timetable of obsolescence, so we can't know for sure when they will simply get tired of making something and cut a bunch more riders loose. And that brings us to the rest of the drive train.

A triple crank and eight-speed cassette provided a nominal 24 speeds. Riders now are now being told that they would rather have only 12 speeds, all in the cassette, with a tinfoil chain, and a derailleur that can barely manage to get the chain onto -- and off of -- a low gear cog that could be larger than 50 teeth. The chain angle is so extreme that you can't backpedal at all in the lowest gear on many bikes, and this limitation is accepted as the price of "progress." On the crank, which could be mounted to any of about a dozen bottom bracket configurations, the chainring may be mounted directly to a proprietary spline pattern, or bolted to one of a handful of new and different bolt circle diameters. Quality Bicycle Products lists 30 different BCDs.

Nice derailleurs that will work with a rational 24-speed system have become rare. Wider chains and sturdier cassettes have moved down to the bottom level of quality. Middle and upper end derailleurs are designed to work with the weird new cassettes and the rare double chainring crank using mostly dinky rings.

Cassettes themselves present another treasure hunt. Between what's unavailable because of the pandemic, and what the industry has deemed no longer necessary, finding your favorite gear keeps getting harder. Back in mid-August I built a 9-speed cassette for someone who couldn't begin to appreciate the ingenuity involved, since it's "just a bicycle." But I fix what can be fixed, because it should be fixed.

The Cog Farm saves the day again.
It's all made more difficult when a rider requires indexed shifting. Anyone who needs the gears to click into place will have little patience with something that requires finesse and accommodation. They want gears on demand. What makes it easy at the user interface is always more complicated under the shell.

A whole generation of riders has grown up with the idea that you use up a bike and throw it out as a complete unit, the way we do with our cars. There's a certain amount of Frankenbiking, but their failure may be as satisfying as success, as long as it's entertaining. The most recent home hobby project to come to us for help was four boys and a dad trying to bolt a 110cc motor onto an old Gary Fisher mountain bike. That hints at numerous trips to the ER. Get it on video, kids! Fortunately, all I had to do was pull a crank arm for them and provide a replacement with sufficient flare to clear the width of the motor. The motor was not mounted, so all I really saw was a beat-up old mountain bike and its eager test pilots eyeballing the dimensions and declaring victory.

When I spec a bike now, I try to make it as future-proof as possible. In addition to finding parts that meet the rider's current needs, I try to predict whether the consumable parts like chains, chainrings, and cassettes, will be there for the rider when they're needed. This only gets harder year by year. Mostly we have to be content to get out of the current crisis and worry about the future when it gets here. It's how humans do things.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

You're entitled to 28 percent

 Clock hands fly around its face as I prepare to leave my place. As soon as I'm at work they crawl, yet summer races into fall.

My house is full of scraps of paper with scribbled notes and drawings, accumulated while I have been too busy to expand on them. Timely observations grow stale or moldy before they can be served.

Based on the conventional model of a five-day week devoted to an employer and two days off, you are entitled to 28 percent of your adult life. For those who have to work more jobs or longer hours to make ends meet, their share is much smaller. I've been there.

Business has tapered off sharply. The shop prepares to shorten hours for the fall hiatus. But the sun races southward and the cellist has had to return to where she is able to ply her trade. Another summer has been devoured.